Saturday September 23, 2023

Challenges of the Indus Basin

November 29, 2019

In this article, I will summarize key discussion points on understanding and assessing the impact of climate change in the Indus Basin. This article is the outcome of a two-day meeting of the Indus Forum Working Group organized by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) this week in Dubai.

Experts from Afghanistan, India, China and Pakistan took part in this two-day meeting organized by the ICIMOD which currently holds the secretariat of this regional forum. I was invited as one of the experts in the working group meeting to contribute in the joint research programme to address the knowledge gap on basin-wide integrated issues of water, ecology, economy and adaptation. The working group was able to devise concrete steps and a viable roadmap for operationalizing and sustaining the joint research programme for which potential funding opportunities were also identified.

There was consensus among the experts to continue working in collaboration on four interlinked work packages – baseline observations, climate change projections, climate change adaptation and capacity building and knowledge exchange. The experts were assigned responsibility to develop a workable research framework by integrating all four work packages into a comprehensive proposal. They, in turn, were able to provide key knowledge ingredients towards the development of a framework for integrated and sustainable basin-wide water resource management and its incremental effects on socioeconomic conditions of people living in the Basin.

The impact of climate and demographic changes on annual water flow as well as the cryosphere (solid water sources like glaciers and snowpack) were thoroughly discussed during the sessions of the working group. Contextual variations of country-specific issues and their interconnectedness with the larger ecology of the Indus Basin were also brought under discussion to help facilitate informed decision-making for the larger good of the 800 million people who are likely to be affected by climate change in the region.

In a nutshell, the experts were given the task to develop a framework for integrated basin-wide water resource assessment under the changing climate in the Indus Basin. It is believed that the joint research outcome will enable development of informed climate change adaptation strategies for informed decision-making about the sustainable management of water resources in the Basin.

Let me summarize the specific objectives of the joint research proposal for the readers. These were; one, to establish long-term monitoring sites in each of the four countries sharing the Indus Basin in order to better understand the spatial and temporal patterns of weather, snowpack, glacier mass balance and black carbon throughout the Upper Indus Basin. Two, develop scenarios to understand the impacts that climate may have on glaciers and water resources in the Upper Indus Basin.

Three, assess potential impacts of plausible future scenarios of cryosphere and climate changes on water, energy and food supply/demand. Four, utilize insights from all the above activities to construct/ develop robust adaptation strategies using a scientific and socioeconomic modelling framework. Five, build the capacity of human resources in the Basin; and six, disseminate and share information learned through the programme with relevant parties.

Based on these broad-based objectives the experts agreed that only regional cooperation beyond the immediate political and economic interests of nation state would usher in long-lasting stability in this ecologically sensitive region. Emanating from the deliberations, the delegates/experts from Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan were able to put forth a concrete proposal under four different work packages as a policy support mechanism for regional cooperation.

The Indus Basin, which is shared by Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan, gets most of its annual water flow from melting of glaciers and snowpack. According to ICIMOD estimates, the annual renewable water availability per capita in the Basin is expected to decrease from its current supply of 1329 m3 to below 750 m3 by 2050 with the rapid increase of basin population. The Basin is likely to undergo disruptions in its hydrological regime because of climate change with some serious implications on the life and economy of more than 300 million people living in the Basin.

The disruption in the hydrological balance (annual rate of glacial deposit and melting) and changing patterns of weather will be detrimental to the agro-based economy and livelihood of poor people. This calls for scientific research to understand the phenomena of abrupt changes and their impact on the cryosphere and associated water resources. However, scientific research alone will not suffice if it is not put to work for improving the quality of life of the people by investing prudently to reduce vulnerabilities through community based adaptation strategies.

In this context, one of the key challenges for researchers and practitioners is to bring together a coherent trans-boundary framework to address the challenges of climate change. Any trans-boundary arrangement requires researchers and practitioners to work closely and the regional states to facilitate coordination between researchers and practitioners. The integration out of ecological and hydrological necessity beyond political conflicts is key to the success of this initiative.

Even the long-term socioeconomic development of the countries in the Basin requires trans-boundary cooperation for optimal and prudent management of their water resources. This joint research initiative of the Indus Forum Working Group will be governed by the programme secretariat – the ICIMOD – a review committee of technical experts and steering committee for administrative oversight.

Despite the visible advantage of cooperation in the water sector among the neighbouring countries in the Basin, so far, there has been no initiative aimed at developing a synoptic understanding of the Indus water system as a whole. The proposed programme is the first of its kind that aims to systematically assess the historic and likely future trends of water resource availability and socio-economic impact across the entire Basin and the four countries sharing the Basin. This will provide policy and decision-makers within the Basin and beyond with the information and knowledge to support the development of evidence-based climate change adaptation planning in the Indus Basin.

‘South Asia has over one-fifth of the world’s population and is recognized amongst the most disaster-prone regions of the world’ (UNEP, 2003). The disadvantaged people of the developing countries of the region will be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as existing risks will increase and new ones will appear.

High Asia including the Hindu-Kush-Karakoram Himalaya (HKKH), Pamir and which includes the Indus Basin, is referred to as the Third Pole and constitutes one of the most extensive glacier-covered regions of the world outside the Polar Regions. It provides water to approximately 800 million people living in its catchments and it is believed that climate change will heavily affect this region. The loss of cryosphere will directly threaten livelihoods in the whole Basin, in addition to bringing about dramatic changes in its climate system, impacting various sectors such as agriculture, horticulture, hydropower generation, tourism, etc.

This is the right time for all of us to think beyond the national border if we have to save our region from the impending destructions due to climate change effects. The ICIMOD has provided a great opportunity to initiate this dialogue and the Indus Forum Working Group can play a pivotal role in promoting this most needed regional cooperation.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.


Twitter: @AmirHussain76